by Dr. Bill Rawls
Updated 10/1/19

By now you’ve likely heard about, seen, and/or tried CBD (cannabidiol), a type of plant compound that’s linked with all sorts of health benefits including reduced pain, improved sleep, and increased calm. CBD is great — I highly recommend it — but it’s not the only cannabinoid you should take advantage of.

In fact, a growing body of research is finding that many cannabinoids possess significant health benefits, especially when taken in tandem with CBD. Whether you’re interested in trying CBD for the first time or optimizing your current regimen, here’s what you need to know about cannabinoids to get the most benefit from every serving.

What Are Cannabinoids?

Fundamentally, cannabinoids are chemical compounds. In the natural world, they’re produced by plants (phytocannabinoids) as well as our bodies (endocannabinoids). As with many chemicals, they can also be made synthetically in a lab.

Professional researchers working in a hemp field, they are checking plants and collecting samples for scientific tests

The best-known plant source of cannabinoids is cannabis — a genus of flowering plants in the botanical family Cannabaceae, which includes marijuana, hemp, and hops. But there are other plant sources of cannabinoids, including liverwort (a type of moss), clove, black pepper, Echinacea, broccoli, ginseng, and carrots.

Two cannabinoids that have received much attention are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the psychoactive compound in marijuana that’s associated with causing euphoria — and CBD (which is not psychoactive), but there are also more than 100 other known cannabinoids. Still, since the passage of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which legalized the commercial production of hemp, CBD from hemp has been getting the most attention.

Though some state laws differ, the federal government defines hemp as a variety of cannabis that contains a maximum of 0.3% THC. These legal definitions and cultural shifts renouncing the term “marijuana” in favor of “cannabis” are causing some semantic confusion in recent years. Here’s one way to look at it: While all hemp is cannabis, not all cannabis can be called hemp, due to THC content.

What is THC?

Because of its psychoactive effects, THC is arguably the most famous (or infamous) of all cannabinoids. THC is best known for causing a “high” feeling, but it does have medicinal properties, too, from pain relief to treating nausea and spasticity, among other conditions.

What is CBD?

CBD is a non-intoxicating compound that researchers have found to hold numerous beneficial qualities including anti-convulsant, anti-anxiety, and anti-inflammatory properties. CBD has become increasingly popular because patients can access its benefits without getting high. Plus, CBD is easier to access since hemp production in America has become more widespread after the federal government started allowing states to enact hemp pilot programs in 2014.

How Do Cannabinoids Affect Us?

THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids affect the human body by interacting with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a regulatory system that’s common to all mammals but has only undergone rigorous scientific study in recent decades.

The ECS is a vast network of receptors located throughout the body. It’s responsible for modulating many physiological systems, including the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems. Researchers have found that the ECS helps to maintain homeostasis, or balance, in these various systems.

Synapse and Neuron, sending electrical and chemical signals.

The ECS contains two main types of receptors, or “message receivers,” classified as CB1 and CB2. The “messages” these receptors receive are actually chemicals that bind to the receptor and either partially or completely activate it or shut it down, producing a corresponding effect within the body.

Cannabinoids interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors in different ways. Ingested THC, for example, primarily activates CB1 receptors in the brain, which creates the feeling of being high, while CBD applied to the skin interacts with CB2 receptors that reduce the body’s inflammatory response.

The different responses comes from how tightly THC and CBD bind to the receptors. THC binds to CB1 receptors in the brain much tighter than other cannabinoids, causing an exaggerated response — euphoria. In fact, it’s the only cannabinoid known to have this intoxicating effect.

CBD and other cannabinoids, on the other hand, bind to CB receptors lightly — less tight even than our natural endocannabinoids. This has the effect of causing the body to make more CB receptors, and therefore we become more sensitive to natural endocannabinoids in the body.

Many scientists hypothesize the ECS could be key to addressing a wide range of health problems and illnesses. The authors of a study titled The Endocannabinoid System as an Emerging Target of Pharmacotherapy noted:

“…modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system turned out to hold therapeutic promise in a wide range of disparate diseases and pathological conditions, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, to cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, hypertension, glaucoma, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis, to name just a few.”

While cannabinoids are certainly no cure-all for all of these conditions, their ability to help modulate the ECS can certainly play a positive role in enhancing wellness. But in order to take advantage of these different benefits, you have to shop wisely and go beyond CBD to tap all of the hemp plant’s possible powers.

Full-Spectrum CBD and the Entourage Effect

CBD’s rising popularity is due in part to the fact that it offers many potential health benefits without causing a high. So, should consumers seek out pure CBD? It turns out that’s not what many plant-medicine experts recommend.

bottle of hemp oil in pipette in hand on white background

Although CBD isolate exists, studies show a blend of cannabinoids is ideal for making the most effective CBD medicine. In a full-spectrum hemp extract, which retains the complete spectrum of the plant’s native compounds, the mix of cannabinoids combined with terpenes (another important group of plant compounds) interacts synergistically.

While isolated CBD and THC can address some symptoms, better outcomes can often be obtained when they are both present, working in concert with each other and other plant compounds. This is what’s known as the “entourage effect.”

Israeli researchers Raphael Mechoulam and Shimon Ben-Shabat are credited with identifying the concept of the entourage effect in 1998. Their trailblazing study of cannabinoids — along with the work of other researchers — indicates these compounds, when utilized independently of one another, aren’t nearly as effective as when they are used in combination, even if some are in low amounts. Not surprisingly, prescription drugs made from CBD isolate require much higher doses to provide a therapeutic benefit, in turn increasing the odds of possible side effects.

The entourage effect is why many experts recommend full-spectrum CBD extracts, also known as whole-plant CBD. Full-spectrum CBD contains the other cannabinoids, terpenes, and fatty acids found in plants that are sourced for extraction.

Beyond THC and CBD

While THC and CBD are the most studied cannabinoids, there are others undergoing more scientific study, such as:

As with all cannabinoids, we need more study of these lesser-known compounds to discern their potential health benefits conclusively. The legal status of the cannabis plant has hampered scientific investigation for decades, but we’re seeing more and more clinical studies and research exploring the therapeutic properties of cannabinoids, which is a most welcome development.

The Bottom Line

A young person uses hemp oil out of a dropper

While CBD has become far more widely available, and many states regard hemp-derived CBD as legal, hemp products are largely unregulated. When you’re shopping for a CBD oil or any other CBD product, it’s best to check your state’s regulations, especially as the laws are still evolving.

Also, to be sure you’re getting the full range of hemp’s potential benefits, choose a full-spectrum CBD product (as opposed to a CBD isolate) from a reputable manufacturer that does third-party testing with a lab certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). These labs meet well-established quality management standards mandated by the ISO federation.

Finally, look for the lab’s Certificate of Analysis (COA) on the CBD manufacturer’s website. An official report of the lab test results, the COA includes a list of all detected cannabinoids and how much of each is present in the product.

Dr. Rawls is a physician who overcame Lyme disease through natural herbal therapy. You can learn more about Lyme disease in Dr. Rawls’ new best selling book, Unlocking Lyme.
You can also learn about Dr. Rawls’ personal journey in overcoming Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in his popular blog post, My Chronic Lyme Journey.

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